Four rules to avoid the perils of pop culture hooks

You might have noticed an increase in the number of thought leadership pieces on business strategy and innovation that use current events and pop culture as hooks to attract eyeballs. This approach is a classic storytelling device—making something that might seem arcane or impenetrable instantly familiar and interesting. And when done well, forging such a link can actually illuminate certain facets of an approach or solution.

On the flip side, though, when the link between the headline or hook and the main point of an article is tenuous at best, readers can come away not enlightened but annoyed. Getting duped will do that to you. (When will I stop clicking on the Outbrain content about the historic photos that will blow my mind? My mind has yet to be blown.)

So in the era of clickbait headlines, viral content, and ubiquitous social media, when is a pop culture or current event hook effective? Here are a few rules to live by.

1) As PwC learned at the Oscars, getting it right matters. The link between the hook and the topic should be tight and able to withstand scrutiny. If you’re sharing insights on how controls and protocols are vital to information security at utilities, PwC’s snafu at the Academy Awards is not a good analog. In this case, it would be better to point to the Vermont utility that was infiltrated by Russian hackers in December as a lead-in to a discussion of the larger issues. It may not be as glamorous as the Academy Awards, but it uses a more relevant recent event and doesn’t mislead the reader.

The takeaway: Take a little more time to ensure the hook and main topic are a good fit.

2) Don’t tie your insights to polarizing or divisive figures. When breaking news about a public figure is lighting up the Internet, it can be so tempting to jump on the bandwagon in order to attract some of that traffic. But if public sentiment breaks against that person, you may find your ideas linked to a pariah. For example, I wrote a blog in October 2015 about how Trump was bypassing the mainstream media and what it meant for business communications. Cut to today: the president has kept up this strategy, but what seemed innocuous at the time is now widely regarded as a systematic assault on a free press and the very definition of the truth. Since he is now the least popular incoming president in history, any insights in the blog have been tainted and are likely to be dismissed or avoided by around 55 percent of the population.

The takeaway: Steer clear of using the most provocative figures in your hooks; it’s just not worth it.

3) To paraphrase Prince, “Your content has the potential to live forever, and that’s a mighty long time.” Thought leadership, particularly the more substantive pieces, are meant to highlight an evergreen business issue. When done well, these insights can be relevant years down the road. But if you choose a very topical hook, your ideas may very well feel stale a month later. By contrast, hooks involving industry leaders, innovators, or companies that fought through adversity to return to better footing are the types of references that will speak to executives for years to come.

The takeaway: Choosing a timeless, universal hook can increase the shelf life of your content.

4) Follow the O’Jays’ advice and “give the people what they want.” When considering a hook, it should be both timely and relevant to your target audience. Although Lady Gaga attracted a record audience of 117.5 million for her Super Bowl performance, chances are that senior executives won’t really see her as a touchstone for how to innovate and adapt. And if you are seeking to connect with web developers, for example, you would be better off using a reference to Silicon Valley than to golfer Jordan Spieth. Last, resist the temptation to talk about an event you view as seminal but your audience won’t care about. Outdated pop culture references just highlight your lack of familiarity with your audience (see, for example, the heading to this rule).

The takeaway: Err on the side of relevance and recency in your hooks.

Part of the magic in a well-executed hook is that it feels at once counterintuitive yet makes complete sense as a lead-in to the main topic. Sometimes serendipity will bless you with the perfect current event for your latest article or post. During the 2016 presidential campaign, my friend David Murray, the publisher of Vital Speeches of the Day, had relevant fodder dropped in his lap virtually every news cycle, but he’s in the minority.

The rest of us should focus our energy on making the content itself distinctive. If you can consistently provide value and insight to readers on topics they care about, you will create more engagement and interest than the pithiest hook ever can.

If you’ve run across any particularly egregious examples of hooks missing the mark, please send them my way.

Scott Leff

Scott is the founder of LEFF. He’s spent his career helping executives and subject matter experts tell their story in a compelling way. In the process, he’s had the opportunity to work with C-suite executives, politicians, academics, and Olympians, not to mention dozens of talented writers, editors, and designers in the business world. Scott developed the concept of “lean content creation” as a cost-effective way to support comprehensive, integrated communication strategies.

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